Celtic Shamanism: The Path of the Hero

Is there such a thing as ‘Celtic shamanism’? Probably not.

Do we have a native shamanic tradition within the British Isles? Certainly.

These two statements are in no way contradictory. It only seems that way because of the word ‘Celtic’.

‘Celtic’, in fact, has been so over-used and so abused in its usage, that we can no longer say with any certainty exactly what it refers to. Nor can we assume that the use of the word, by any two different writers or historians, means precisely the same thing.

The fact is that we have little hard evidence about the Celts and, given this vacuum, the people themselves, their practices and beliefs, have been variously mythologized, idealised, and/or demonised in order to create solidity out of Irish mist.

The ‘hard evidence’ and ‘real information’ we believe we have about Celtic ‘shamanic’ practices is not without problem either, since most of it was passed on orally and has been subject to elaborations, embellishments, distortions and, indeed, fabrication, over time.

It was not until the Christian colonisation of Ireland, for example, that the ancient stories, passed from mouth to ear across the generations, began to be recorded in writing at all – and then, we can imagine, they were ‘shrunk to fit’ the Christian agenda. Under this new spiritual regime, for example, the earth goddess, Brigid, is ‘miraculously’ transformed into St Bridget, with similar but quite different attributes to her natural predecessor and, of course, a new-found belief in the ‘one true [male] god’.

Notwithstanding the slight problem of a dearth of factual evidence, however, everyone seems to have their own ideas about the Celts. These ideas are really projections of ourselves onto the fog-screen of history and an archetypal reflection back to us of what we would like, or need, to be true. No doubt it fits our modern, urban, need for romance and escapism to imagine our ancestors as poetic warriors, living wild and free in great sacred forests, in idyllic communion with the whole of nature.

The Romans, however, had very different ideas, stemming, again, from their own (imperialistic) needs. To them, the Celts were savage barbarians, sacrificing their children, prizing the severed heads of murdered enemies, and living in the woods like animals, where they worshipped pigs and dogs and other lowly beasts. Such projections enabled the Roman leaders to justify their invasions of Celtic lands, where they would do us all a favour by ‘civilising’ the barely-human heathens who had the audacity to live there.

The Greeks, too, had their conception of the Celtic people, a somewhat different conception to that of the Romans. They called them Keltoi, which has connotations of ‘Hero’ and also of ‘Strangeness’. The Keltoi were the ones who stood outside of civilisation and had an unusual understanding of nature and the elements. To the ‘civilised’ Greeks, the Celts were still savages, but perhaps they also had something about them, some secret power or knowledge…

In summary, there are as many ‘Celts’ as there are windows into the human imagination. What we know (almost) for certain, is that they lived between 700 BC and 400 AD. Apart from that, their very tribal natures, as well as the different landscapes they occupied and the variation in natural resources available to each tribe, obviously meant vast differences between them in terms of beliefs, customs, culture and living (as well as ritual) practices. Even in the British Isles today, there remain huge differences between the way of life of the Scottish, Irish and Welsh-speaking peoples.

As Emma Restall Orr has written, in her commentary on the ‘classical’ Druid (the Celtic ‘priest’), as a man “in white robes, bearded, with ornate staff and golden sickle tucked into the belt”…

“In fact, this image of the Druid in white is little more than two hundred years old, created during a period of revived interest in the tradition when one picture from the classical literature of two millennia ago was chosen from many: Pliny’s image of the Druid cutting mistletoe from the sacred oak. If Strabo had been used, the stereotype might be rather different, but his Druids – in red, adorned with gold – had not perhaps the dignity and nobility that was needed”.

Despite its fanciful nature, however “it is this figure that is responsible for drawing many into the tradition. But what is that tradition?”

Druidry is the native spirituality of Britain, which has its origin in the animistic principle of honouring the earth, the ancestors, the elements, and the connection between all things. “Druidry emerged out of the rocks and forests and rain of Britain, and its very nature is wrapped in the beauty, power and shifting stories of all that Britain has been over many thousands of years”.

For Orr, the focus of Druidic practice is ‘awen’, an old British/Welsh word which means ‘flowing spirit’. The word contains notions of creative genius and poetic imagination, in a similar way to the Irish word ‘imbas’, which refers to a sense of wonder and inspiration.

“Understanding that all creation is imbued with spirit (matter and physicality being the creativity of spirit), the Druid knows that it is in relationship, spirit to spirit, that inspiration is found… In recognizing the spirit of some aspect of creation, be it elemental, plant, animal, rock or human, we are given the opportunity to know our own spirit, to respond from our own spirit… Where spirit touches spirit, where there is communion on this level and the energy of life is exchanged, awen flows. [Awen] is the lightning that reaches between earth and sky, between lovers’ eyes.

“Yet simply breathing in the beauty of inspiration is not enough. It is the Druid’s responsibility to ensure that this energy continues to flow, spirit to spirit, for energy which is held in the body or soul stagnates and swells with sickness or pride. So inspiration must be expressed, the energy inhaled must be exhaled, and this is done through the Druid’s creativity”.

What we might call the Keltic ‘Path of the Hero’ had, we imagine, three ‘Ways’ or areas of expertise: The Way of the Bard, the Ovate and the Druid, each with its own means of inspiration and creative expression.

THE BARD is the poet and storyteller, who weaves magic and mystery with words, and can find mystic prayers, blessings and songs of empowerment, of protection, and enchantment. His words have the power to harm or to charm, to soothe and to transport the listener into the worlds of poetic imagination, where the wellspring of creative genius, the shamanic landscape, is to be found.

THE OVATE is the seer, who perceives the holism of the world, the bigger picture of life intertwining with forces beyond the mundane and the human. His is the power to foretell futures, to witness the past, and to understand its cosmic dance into the life-yet-to-come. Through this, he may unravel the past and shift the events of the present so that new potential and healing may come in to being.

THE DRUID is more fully the shaman, the rounded Man of Power, who knows the arts of the Bard and the Ovate, and is able to use these skills, and personal magic, to negotiate with the spirits, the elements, and the power of nature Herself, in order to bring back their gifts to the tribe. The church of the Druid is the sacred grove of the forests – a “church not made with hands” – which exists within, is part of, and represents the infinite power of Nature.

“The sacred text is the landscape within which we live. Its language is that of the deciduous forests, the ancient oaks, the heather-tinged moors, the meadows of grass lit with buttercups and daisies, the long dark winters that creep into the bones, the laughter and dance of chilly May evenings. Its path has been trodden for many thousands of years by those who found inspiration in the beauty and fertility of these lands”.

The very mention of ‘Celtic shamanism’ will inevitably lead to debate, discussion, and argument, notably between academics, frustratingly unable to pigeonhole the meaning of that elusive concept; but also among ‘new agers’ with a cosy modern notion of forest rituals and flowing robes; and among more conservative members of the public, who are likely to view it as in some way similar to ‘witchcraft’ or perhaps even ‘Satanism’. It seems that we all have a notion of who the ‘Celts’ were and of ‘natural British magic’.

For that reason alone, it may be best, in some ways, to forget the word ‘Celtic’ altogether (‘Keltic’ is, in any case, more accurate) – but not to forget the power of its tenets and beliefs.

Creative genius, poetic imagination, the power of Nature, and the living Spirit of the World; these are the things which will create positive change in our lives, the skills which need to be honed.